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tv   David Litt Thanks Obama  CSPAN  October 21, 2017 10:00am-10:46am EDT

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bottom half of americans. the notion that those 400 people are producing more than the bottom half of americans, that's just false. that's a matter of market failure. it's institutions that are not resulting in rewards that are appropriately being distributed to individuals on the basis of their merits. the market is established by government, and right now we have a system of crony capitalism, casino capitalism that directs resources to the rich and powerful and away from people who are working and producing. .. here is the book called "chicaganomics". it is by university of
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california santa barbara pastor and this is book tv on c-span2. >> book tv has attended freedom press, a libertarian conference several times. if you're interested in hearing from other freedom best authors go to our website booktv.org and type freedom fast, one word into the search bar. you hope you other interviews online. >> you are watching tv, television for serious readers. you can watch any program you see here online @booktv .org. >> good evening ladies and gentlemen. welcome to barnes & noble upper
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west side. david entered the white house in 2011 and left in 2016 as a special assistant to the president and senior presidential speechwriter. described as the [inaudible] use of the president he contributed jokes to president obama's speeches and the lead writer on for white house correspondents dinner presentations. he is currently the head writer for tony or die dc. he is a staff writer at the new yorker, adam. he compounded npr's planet mon money. he has been a frequent contributor to this american life. his work has appeared in the atlantic, harpers, gq, rolling stone and other publications. they bring us tonight, his new book thanks, obama. more than any other presidency, barack obama's eight years of
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the white house were to fight by young people. in 2011, david became one of the youngest white house speechwriters in history until leaving the white house in 2016 he wrote on topics from healthcare climate change, criminal justice form and took the lead as president obama's go to comedy writer. now, in this professionally honest memoir he brings us inside obama world. full of hilarious stories and told in a truly original voice thank obama is an exciting to view about what it means personally, professionally and politically to grow up. teagan michael key causes for, part first his story about being inspired by a cultural icon, part how-to manual for getting involved in politics and making
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change. thank obama is a hysterical, pithy, and heartfelt trick down memory lane. boy, do we need it. without further i do, please join me in welcoming david and adam. [applause] >> thank you very much. i'm adam davidson. i'll do most of the talking tonight. i was telling david i would do this event i read the book and i was believed to love it. it's a fabulous -- teagan michael key explained it very well. it hits different tones and takes you into a whole bunch of different worlds, both from your naïve enthusiastic dream of one day making change in the world to actually being in the rooms that were change is made.
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i was trying to think of what would give this audience a sense of the tone of the book and it feels like a cheap shot to start with the golden girls story but is that a fair story to start with? >> that i think is certainly the first half of the book. i divided it into two parts because i felt like the first couple of years my central question was why on earth would they hire someone like me since i am the person who presumably could write speeches okay but does not remember to wear a belt always and it seems like people who work in the white house should run for that kind of thing. the second half as i started to feel more comfortable at the white house i did try to write about the sense of all of us
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including former colleagues here tonight we offer some small part in this big thing and trying to figure out what that meant and grapple a little more with what it means to be in public service. to the golden girls, i had been to the white house for about nine months and the chief speech writer, john favreau, state of america called me in the office and said betty white is turning 90 years old and and pc is doing a comedy special where different famous people are wishing her a happy birthday in these 30 seconds gets and you are funny and no one else want to do it. would you give it a shot work i said absolutely and said this was my gettysburg address. it is a full chapter so it's a
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long story but essentially i managed to ruin nearly every part of my first meeting in the oval office and was about to leave and disgrace when the president was supposed to bob his head in time to the golden song said if i'm going to bob my head i need to know how the music goes. does anyone know here the golden girl theme song and we looked at our videographer and she didn't say anything so i looked at hope and hope didn't say anything so president obama looked at me and suddenly i knew what i could do for my country [-left-square-bracket i was standing in the oval office and i looked our commander-in-chief in the eye and i said thank you for being a friend. both the bone. the thing i don't write about but i've always wondered there was a secret service agent in the hallway and he couldn't see it but i always wondered what
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he's thinking. >> i've heard you read the audiobook and reducing a good chunk of it. i feel like to set the stage of the book is to talk about who you are right before you went to the white house some of a touch of political experience but that first opportunity to enter the door of that kid was a post he became. >> i always thought i would go into comedy after college. added standup comedy in high school and i was like the weird 15 -year-old in the amateur night invaded improv in college and then when i was a senior i was 21 years old and i saw barack obama speak after the iowa caucuses after he won that night. i was on a plane and it was one of those when they had three
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cable on planes and i was watching cnn because it wasn't anything else on and two minutes into that speech i was totally a different person. by the time the plane landed i was one of those people who would not shut up about barack obama and the fact that i've now written the book called face, obama says i have not changed very much. i had gotten to write speeches and i fell backwards into this internship in washington at a speech writing for so i've had a couple of years of experience but it was one of those things that i look back on now had a conversation with one of the members of the senior staff who had read one of my speeches and liked it and asked me to help on another. i met her for the first time and she looked at me and looked at her chief staff said he is very young and with this. now, i don't blame her. that was the moment that when i was walking into the building for the first time.
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it felt very surreal because you assume that the white house would be populated by grown-ups and people do not make mistakes and one of the reasons i wrote the book was that i wanted to talk about not just the times a go well but the mistakes are made. >> so without giving too much away the ark of the book is you coming to this maturity, i would say -- >> very mature. yes, it is a complex love story. >> it reads in an enjoyable way but i say the spine of the book is a complex love story about obama and coming and going through a juvenile infatuation to this different understanding of who this man is and what the role of the president is.
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you do a masterful job of that is there but it is not and it never feels too preachy or and it never feels like a lecture book but there are anecdotes and your changing over time and i think there was a period where you were disappointed in the district he was and his role and i would love to hear you talk about that. >> yeah, for me when i started writing the book i thought this would be easy. i've written speeches for the president so how hard can this be. the answer was very hard. one of the hard things about it was thinking about the overall arc. as a speechwriter, i would always try to make sure that people only focused on one thing. the speech has to be about one thing, not five things. after i sent in my first draft of my editor, denise was over there, she said this is pretty
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good but what is it about. i said it was about five things. crap as i went back and reread it to me the book is about a story about what it means to fall in love and be loved, whether a person, president, country but when you're 21 and you're just starting out and then when you are still, i think it is there to say, a young person. when you have aged a little bit and matured and what it means to be an adult in the way that you love a person or a cause as opposed to being head over heels and having this very exciting but ultimately less filling kind of crush that i think i had when i first fell in love with barack obama on that plane. >> you really get a sense of when you take us into the oval office and into these conversations and it's not all
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golden girl songs. -- >> it's really just the golden girls theme song over and over again. [laughter] >> we read about the health of flight care and healthcare and to this character who happens to be you and it helped me think about what is the role of the president. what is reasonable to expect of that person and what the world is like when that role is held by someone who takes the office very seriously and think deeply about what that means. there is a heartbreaking moment where you almost fall out of love with obama. i think the presidential debate where you saw him fail to bring it and that felt like a turning point in your story about him. can you talk about that period
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of time when we have such a turn to congress that refuses to let obama do anything and you're beginning to realize that even though i'm at the white house and rising with this white house we don't have as much power as i wanted. talk about that part of your career. >> my experience with it is there is some campaign metrics here so will have these first debate flashbacks together but i wanted to write about that moment because in the first debate with matt romney, as many of you remember, president obama did very poorly. more than that, i mean he is the best political performer of his generation hands down and i write in the book about how exciting it was to write speeches for someone like that but at this moment the stakes were high, watching him have the ball in his hands and not come through and what i wrote about district there was never a moment where i said i am putting
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for this whole thing is a fraud but i did have this moment where the idea that there exists someone who is better than people, that doesn't seem to be the case. realizing that even the president of the united states and the president you admire anything is doing a great job for the country is a human being. trying to grapple with that because i think when i, at first imagine what it would be like to have an obama presidency and he used to say on the campaign that i would it be a perfect president and that's what i thought a perfect person would say it will be a perfect president. realizing that is not the case and i don't think in the end, to me, the word disillusion gets thrown around washington and we all get disillusioned with whatever we do in life but the fact that our leaders are only human isn't ultimately disappointing. it's liberating but it also makes us comfortable and i
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wanted to try to write a book about how the end of president obama's eight years in office i felt more confident because i knew or had a sense of the humanity of even our most powerful leader. >> can you talk about the mechanics of writing a presidential speech? it's a picture you paint well but and i like how you convey two different approaches. the head approach and the heart approach. but that is getting the first draft. there's all this other stuff. >> mostly picking the right elton john strategy. i promise we wouldn't do too much top. but. [laughter] every white house is different. in the obama white house we would generally have one writer will depend on a speech. if i was for a policy speech i would meet the policy team. the speechwriter is the token ignoramus in the process so my
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job was to not know a lot about the issue and have experts tried to shove information into my head and then i would, after that, do my best to come up with a draft, do research on my own and would go to the speechwriter, john favreau and cody keenan in the second term. from there it would eventually go to the president. for a big speech, state of the union, even the correspondence dinners the president would edit wellin advance of the speech. one of the things i always admired about president obama was that he didn't edit just to edit. if he made a change it was 99 times out of a hundred a good change and if it wasn't he would leave it alone. >> so a big speech deck -- hundreds -- a decent side speech is it weeks of work, hours of
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work that. >> usually had about a week. i talk about message events and that was routine maintenance for writers. it wasn't something that would end up in the history books but president obama goes to kansas city to talk about the auto industry or whatever and you can add live it that way. the president goes to this place to talk about the thing. those speeches we had about one week. sometimes you would have somebody passing away and you have to write a statement in a couple of hours or in a day or two. sometimes with the correspondence in her, for example, we would know we had plenty of time so we can prepare and that was for the correspondents dinner take three weeks. it depends. >> with that you had fun because we had these comedians from around the country sending in jokes -- >> that was the exception role where we could have people and you could have a writers room. it wasn't a physical room you can have 15 people who were all sitting in jokes and a lot of
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them were current staff for former staff but some of them were also professional, writers hollywood. >> i didn't realize judge appetite was writing material. >> yeah, he wrote material. >> how did it affect your thinking about great orators and great political speech prop history is that something you are calling upon with jfk or reading cicero as you are writing the speeches. >> maybe there was a much more conscientious person in our office reading cicero and parking on a speech but most the time the main thing is you have a lot to do and not a lot of time to do it in and that is when you realize maybe cicero had the same problem so i do think you learned that about the
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job quickly and that most of what you're trying to do is do a job that you thank you can do but you don't know if you can do it under that level of pressure and when the stakes are high. i also learned about speechwriting that speechwriters absolutely play a role in what our leaders say but they don't really put words into someone's mouth. that's not possible. when you hear a great orators from the past say something it doesn't reflect who they are. some of those people may have had of writing but fundamentally when you see a speaker and it looks like they don't know what they want to say it is usually because they don't know what they want to say and no amount of speechwriting will accept. it comes from the possible him or herself. >> i can think of an example of that very thing. >> i can't. [laughter] >> i became a radio reporter and i love magazine writer and became a magazine writer and
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part of me can't read an article or listen to readership without tearing it apart. i see what they were doing their and oh boy, they stayed a couple beats too long there or they should have moved that over here or whoever it might be and with that say i've done the thing that person is doing. >> shakespeare. [laughter] they do think when i listen to politicians speak, sure, you have that moment where you edit in your head and sure when you listening to a radio story or magazine article you think i see the craft or the lack of craft spinning on the piece and i do think that is certainly true. and it is interesting now as a democrat we have a lot of democrats making a bid to be a future leader of the party and you do see this isn't just what they are saying but it's how they are approaching these occasions. it's an interesting sort of
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thing and i imagine you have a similar experience and you wish you could turn it off and enjoy it. >> and from time to time you can. it's a totally different genre but it is. >> and that's what i know something is good and different. if i listen to a speech and feel moved rather than thinking. partly because i overthink things anyway but also because that is assigned someone has gone past the questions about craft and into the things that make speeches great to begin with. >> like rocket man. >> right, that is exactly what i'm talking about in that moment. >> i do feel like we have to talk about the large elephant in the room and sort of the premise of your job in the premise of the obama presidency was this is the right thing to do and also
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this is a sustaining thing to do that being careful and thoughtful about your words is how you will become president and how you will leave the country. president obama said trump will not win because i trust the american people and that is not how it works. obviously, we could make fun of trump all day long and i would enjoy doing that but -- to some degree trump is a bullet reputation of president obama's understanding of the world and i would think your understanding of the world. it's a totally different way, crude, untrue, blustery way of speaking and a ham-fisted reading of words that someone else wrote when you are on teleprompter. how do you think about that as
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you understand america today? >> first of all i don't think the main issue with trump is the order in which he organizes his words. [-left-square-bracket i don't think that's the main issue or president obama certainly many of us worked with him objected to trump so strongly and assume that america wouldn't vote for this guy and when it comes to his speaking style some of the things he does are out there but i also think there are two modes of confusion. president obama was making a clear argument. i think it was a writer before he was a politician and he wanted to tell one story and story leaving a 2b. my opinion america hasn't fundamentally changed because we have to look back and know that
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donald trump wasn't elected by majority of voters. >> and continue to. >> what it reminds us that our political system is broken but that americans are better than our politics. i think that piece is one of president obama was saying for years before that that when you look at the values that americans have they are not respected in washington and they should be. >> you already said that point but that the clarity of obama speaking was a reflection of his understanding and if someone, for example, was a clear and speaking -- >> i do thank you see a window into trust thought process which is jumbled. >> is there anything hardball and you see a great steven muller speech or one of trump's desperate. >> no, i don't think i'm just saying this because we are in manhattan and it's a for
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democrats but i do think that's when i read teleprompter, speeches i don't object -- i don't agree with the ideas, the language is fine but it is middling. it seems like so low a list of issues. the thing that drives me crazy is the danger that we lower the bar in general for what is presidential. when president obama would speak on the teleprompter we would get grief from the conservative media constantly and that is just a fact. when president successfully speaks of a teleprompter he's presidential. it is remember that we not set our expectations for the future based on a donald trump. this is an aberration. >> we will open it up to questions. there is a microphone so wait for the microphone because we are being taped for c-span. if you don't want to be a
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c-span, don't ask a question. >> you can raise your hand, i do have a q and a microphone over here. >> hello. i was wondering if west wing or house of cards is influencing or writing in any way? >> house of cards. most of the murders i committed were based on house of cards. though, i think the presidential speeches in the west wing were good presidential speeches and in that sense, in the same way you can go back and look at a speech that rfk gave -- [inaudible] it gives you a sense what you want. most democrats under the age of 35 i was raised by [inaudible] the idea that politics could be inspiring and meaningful, that
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had a lot to do with the west wing. >> i told you earlier that reading your book gave me that kind of west wing feeling of entering in this world and this is a thoughtful president with a highly competent people who really want to do the right thing. the world of your book mistakes happen, people groups grew up, usually it is you but it's a world where people are earnest and serious and want to make america better and it gave me that feeling i remember having watching the west wing during the bush presidency of it's nice to take a break from the world today and go to this alternative unit of this. >> to some extent both when i was writing it in our readers are approaching it like a little time machine. it doesn't last that long but for a brief moment you are back when obama was president and that was nice when i was writing it. >> you mentioned and adam mentioned that you grew to love
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and admire obama and you have conveyed that he was ball and took it seriously. can you elaborate more as to what the president, what you admire the most. please give examples. >> sure, desperate. >> to communicate narrative it's better when they are specific. >> i'll add details [-left-square-bracket one of the things i will mention here just because i think it was maybe not necessarily evidence if you're watching president obama speak but i talk about some of the ways working on his jokes gave me that was nice. i didn't write about what it was like to be in the situation room saint mr. president we should get bin laden because i did not
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do that and i got to talk about this other thing. i write about one point in the book where we were doing a taping and we were doing a taping and we had to takes president obama had stuff to do so we only had ten minutes and he reads the first set of jokes and they are not bad but it is not perfect. he sometimes sizes the wrong words and things aren't quite right but i remember being worried and the second time you read it i could see that he had not rehearsed it and i was there and i'm sitting there the whole time but it was like he had studied the things and knew exactly which word he needed to hit in order to make every joke lands. that was in a very low stakes contacts, a version of the quality you saw with him a lot that he was very good at figuring out and sorting through information and figuring out and executing on that thing flawlessly.
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that is a quality i don't thank you would ask me a 21 what would make barack obama or making good at her job i don't think i would've said that would exclusive exclusively on that but that's what i admired about the president. as david knows i'm one of the people who did the visuals and he could deliver the words that david had written about this great stage bawling out and denigrate the word -- there is a book called on death years by a professor that ezra klein wrote about in the new yorker a couple of years ago and it puts together scientific evidence about how the last 20 years or 30 years this book was written for social media and soundbites have gotten shorter and i'm curious as you write a whole speech how you are thinking about how to sell the portions
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of it that the majority of americans might actually listen to or absorb. i will say that sometimes being a speechwriter felt like being a very sort of well-qualified horse and buggy repairmen. you feel that 20 or 30 years from now speeches will not be as fortunate as they are today and there will still be moments after a tragedy for the state of the union were the presidential speech is important but one of the things i write about is the way that we start communicating not just through speech or interviews but in a variety of different ways and i write about what it was to have funny or die and they came in and president obama was a guest with zach gal. chris and i thought this was a terrible idea and i was totally wrong. that was a moment i think when we realized there are other ways to get the message across and the phrase we used and heard a lot in the second term was meeting people where they live
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and i think when it comes to the ability of speech is to persuade it was not so much someone who voted against obama twice would listen to a message and say i was wrong and now i support this policy but i think we could do is focus the country's attention on the issues that you knew that if people were thinking about that then they would join you on the other stuff. we could talk about the auto industry and the way it came back that is something people all agreed it wasn't hard for people to wrap their heads around. i think that to me is how i think about it. presidents can't really tell people what to think but they can tell people what to think about. that was our guiding idea. i don't know if you ever express it that way. >> david, you mentioned that
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obama's speeches often had a point of view or try to make an argument and to the extent that did you agree with that argument and you didn't agree and did it affect your ability to write the speech. >> i was pretty lucky because i didn't have to write speeches about anything i fundamentally disagree with. there were not a whole lot of obama policies that i thought were terrible and i do it anyway. when people ask me was there a speech that you just feel like you had to write about something you disagree with, i did write a speech about the new chips and credit cards and how great they were going to be and i've been told since then that they are good policy for reasons i don't understand but every time i sit in one of the credit card thingies and waiting for 15 seconds i feel just a tiny bit personally responsible last i will regret that proper.
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>> it is highly unusual for [inaudible] is pitiful actually. there was this foreign correspondent dinner several years ago in which obama pretty much crucified the president and it was like a personal roast. do you remember that or did you see it? yes, i remember that. >> how did you write to that and how did that contribute. >> that was in 2011. i just started in the white house so john lovett, one of the former white house speechwriters also now on positive america he was managing the joke writing process and he wrote those jokes about trump. my experience with it was sitting in the cheap seats in the back of the room and watching the back of his head and you could see how red he was
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turning from behind and then we all at this point seen him on video of it and he seems to go inside himself, to a very strange and dark place. the one thing i will say is that people have said that this moment he decided to run but it's not like president obama was picking on some random person in the audience. donald trump had been on this tour for quite some time so he clearly had gotten a taste for politics and had some sort of political ambition and i always think that what really got in that moment and obviously speculation but i feel speculating what is going on donald trump had is our new national pastime. i will participate. [laughter] this is an audience of hollywood celebrities, media figures and washington politicians and those are the people who donald trump has always craved the approval of his entire life. he is watching president obama gain their approval by roasting
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someone who he feels has acted wrongly to him. donald trump was not just being the subject of humiliation but watching his fantasy play out on stage. i think there was a sense of envy and one of the reasons that he is so obsessed with president obama is that he became president and discovered just because you're the president doesn't mean everyone loves you. you have to earn it. when you're the president, you can do a good job in your friends can still be frustrated with you. >> i'm not sure trump has learned that lesson. >> no, he hasn't. but i think he is beginning to realize that there is this notion would walk into the white house and everyone would love him and or at least everyone would tend to love him and i don't think he draws a distinction between the two. i think that he is realizing in a democracy it is the opposite. people who love you the most are still going to be giving you a hard time.
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i don't know that he is coming to terms of that but i think it comes out in weird ways. >> i wonder if you would agree to some of us that maybe the substance of the speech is more important than how poorly or it might not be delivered of a very good way. it is what he says, more than how he says it that he gets his argument out. >> i absolutely agree with that. it was a real joy to write for president because he was a fantastic speaker and there were moments that use that ability to accomplish goals that maybe he couldn't have if he wasn't so good when it came to rhetoric. certainly when it comes to jokes, for example, he is comic timing. that is not a requirement for to be a president. you can be a good president but not a good comedian.
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i certainly agree that most of the problem in speechwriting, speech doesn't feel right it is not someone says but how they set it. often this is not talking about the experience in the white house but probably about speechwriting because a question that often people do not ask is what is the point. you see speeches where someone has never answered the question about what are we trying to accomplish and what is the point in all of this. i think in the white house we were lucky enough that we were able to do both of those things and the person delivering the marks was capable of doing a lot as a speaker and that's one of the reasons why i don't see [inaudible] >> i would say having observed several presidents that it is not two separate things and it's not like there is the process of having clear goals and policies and then separately there is this other thing of making them look pretty or not but it's the
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very fact of in fact there is a communication steam and the goals can be articulated while and is a reflection of a well questioning white house. i was in iraq when they were having trouble getting their policies and it wasn't just shakespeare himself could it made those policies sound good and it was a reflection of muddled confused policy. >> that is a good point. >> when we talk of humor and politics the role is usually to be an outlier for us to say that politicians can't say so you got john stewart or people who are getting in trouble consistently for crossing lines but here your job is to create humor that actually is the thing that the president can you say and how did that change your own notion of humor and its value and the effect it has politics.
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>> i think that's when it comes to humor in writing for presidents the way that i put in the book was riding a joke for politician is like dining designing something stylish for marlon brando. the copyright is gone. we're writing president obama even though he had a sense of comic timing that politicians do not you are still thinking about what is the line for him. for example, i think about a joke in 2013 he said one thing all republicans agree on is a need to do a better job of reaching out to minorities call me self-centered but i can think of one minority they should start with. i liked that joke but one of the things we are wondering is is what the president want to refer to soft and be referring to himself as a minority in public. that would not have been a question in jon stewart's but that was edgy for the president in that moment. it was a step he hadn't taken
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before. to me, humor, one of the things you learn about is it's similar to other speeches and not just the words on the page and not just a speaker but this combination of the person, the moment in the context. >> your introduction emphasize the use of the administration and your own opening remarks and your undercurrents and your naïveté, i think was your word in the beginning and idealism and your maturation throughout the process and as a outside observer who is not really has no love between me or either party that naïveté idealism of the administration is not hard to discern but i'm wondering if you could identify anything you thought were lost opportunities because there was so much
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euphoria that by the time they got to the end of the administration they could have revisited again and they might have achieved the goal they were unable to achieve because in the beginning they didn't know how to achieve it. >> let me answer your question and i'll say something really different but somewhat related. i think that one of the things i talk about in the book is the debt ceiling negotiation in 2011. i think it was surprising to all of us all of us have our republicans were willing to go to try to draw concessions out of the white house. they were basically willing to hold the economy hostage and if he had it triggered the debt ceiling and we had it defaulted on her debt it would have been another economic crisis, possibly even worse thousand eight. i do think that was almost in visible in part because in the obama white house we were, i
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think, and i say this is a good thing idealist. the idea that someone could be so cynical and purely driven by power i think sometimes that was a moment when maybe it took us by surprise but i think the one thing i would just rephrase a little bit and we talked about naïveté and idealism and i don't think those two things have to be related. one of the reasons why i wanted to write this book is because i think a lot of washington books have this two sides of the spectrum where one is being naïve and idealistic and other is being worldly and cynical. i think that the challenge for all of us, not just politically, but as people is if you want to be an adult, you need to be worldly and realistic but if you want to be a good adult and a good person you have to have idealism as well. to me it's a book about becoming an idealist and also a realist
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simultaneous. how do you hold these seemingly free contradictory ideas in your head at the same time. >> thank you so much, david. [applause] >> thank you. >> you'll be signing books over here, right behind you. i can't encourage you enough. you'll enjoy reading the book. it won't feel like you are learning anything but by the end of it the world is a different place. >> big round of plays for david and adam. [applause] ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much. give us a moment to set up. grab a copy of the book if you don't already have one and will be signing on stage. thank you so much. have a great evening.
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